MPs attack GM seed contamination 'confusion'

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The Independent Online

The Government was today criticised by MPs for failing to respond more clearly to an incident involving the contamination of normal crop seeds with GM material.

The Government was today criticised by MPs for failing to respond more clearly to an incident involving the contamination of normal crop seeds with GM material.

The House of Commons agriculture committee found there had been "confusion" inside Whitehall over which department should handle the mix-up that sparked fears over GM crop releases.

In the incident UK farmers sowed Advanta Seeds UK conventional rapeseed that contained about 1% of genetically modified rapeseed.

In a report into GM organisms and seed segregation, the agriculture committee said: "Clearer procedures are required for dealing with incidents of this kind.

"It was obvious that confusion existed as to which ministry should lead on this issue.

"The lengthy internal debate on this incident contrasts with the robust rapid Swedish disclosure in like circumstances."

The committee said: "Planting of the new crop of winter oilseed rape begins in August and it is essential that farmers are able to plant these crops with confidence.

"This means that this year's batch of seed must be tested and certified as free from GM content.

"For farmers near the field trials, it is also vital that they can be sure that their crops are protected as far as possible from inadvertent cross-pollination which will require a rapid assessment of the consultation on segregation distances and an equally rapid implementation of the advice which emerges as a result."

Seed companies needed "urgent regulatory guidance" to try to prevent future mix-ups, the cross-party committee said. It called for input from the newly-established Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission.

"These judgements will carry little confidence outside a narrow scientific community without broader consultation."

In the longer term, the committee said the Government should work with other EU states to produce "workable regulations" on seed purity.

Liberal Democrat agriculture spokesman Colin Breed said: "The report highlights the underhand way in which the Government have tried to cover up the cross-contamination issue.

"They were forced into disclosure by the swift and decisive action of the Swedish Government in similar circumstances."

Mr Breed added: "Today they announced 25 new trial sites, and they are still sitting on the results of consultations into separation distances.

"The Government must act now to ensure that there is proper protection for conventional and organic farmers.

"The Government's policy has been characterised by dither, delay and cover up. Only decisive and open action can restore public confidence."

Environmental groups today attacked as "irresponsible" plans to extend GM crops trials in the UK due to be announced later.

The Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions this afternoon was expected to give details later today of up to 25 new GM testing sites.

Government experts were also set to discuss recommended separation distances between GM and non GM sites.

But Friends of the Earth demanded compensation for bee keepers whose hives are affected and organic farmers whose crops could be contaminated.

A FoE spokesman said: "Beekeepers are having to move their hives six miles from the farm-scale trials to protect the purity of honey. Will they be compensated?"

According to Friends of the Earth, sites earmarked for GM trials are located in Lincolnshire, Cheshire, North Yorkshire, Hertfordshire, Warwickshire, Herefordshire, Cambridgeshire, Nottinghamshire, Norfolk, Worcestershire, Leicestershire, Aberdeenshire, and Ross and Cromarty in Scotland.

Agriculture Minister Baroness Hayman said the Government's policy was to take a "precautionary, scientific approach" to GM technology.

Speaking ahead of today's announcement, the minister said that the Government would not rule out "technology that could bring benefits for the environment and farmers".

She said: "I don't think these trials are worthless at all.

"There have been a lot of assertions made about the effects on biodiversity and on the environment that growing GM crops might have.

"We need to know the answers to these questions over and above what has already been done on the assessment of safety.

"We have a full number of sites available for this year's winter plantings."

But she denied that the trials were in disarray, adding: "I really deplore trashing of the sites and vandalism.

"I particularly deplore people who are taking away the evidence of the effects on biodiversity, the monitoring of wildlife, which is what these trials are all about."